Chefs Connect with Smll Fries

Professionals are giving schoolchildren in central Ohio a taste of healthful recipes that lunchrooms - and picky eaters - might eventually choose over fried, fatty fare.

As an executive chef for Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, Jeff Lindemeyer is accustomed to dealing with demanding customers.

So he took some recent criticism in stride.

"This is a little spicy," Kelly Cline noted after tasting Lindemeyer's tossed salad with homemade vinaigrette.
Cline isn't a customer; she's a fourth-grader at Liberty Elementary School in Worthington who recently helped Lindemeyer sample some dishes at the school.

Lindemeyer has made several trips to Liberty through a Department of Agriculture program derived from first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! Initiative. The effort is designed to unite chefs with schools in the hopes of improving student nutrition.

More than a dozen central Ohio schools or school districts have signed up for the program, although only a few have yet to spend much time with chefs.

In at least three central Ohio locations - Liberty Elementary, Par Excellence Academy charter school in Newark and the Delaware schools - chefs have worked with students for months, cooking, explaining food and testing recipes.

"Having chefs in school adds a great dimension," said Mary Kirwin, the school nurse who oversees the Par Excellence program. "I think it's a great, great start that will allow us to get out of this mess we're in with school food."

At Par Excellence, the chef's involvement continues an emphasis on food that began three years ago and includes a food of the day, a garden and even three chickens.

Meghan Svatora, a personal chef who runs the company Dinner on the Go, began working with Par Excellence in September, preparing dishes based on the food of the day. Because Par Excellence relies on the Newark district for its meals, the recipes haven't made it onto the school menus, but they have been used for snacks.

Lindemeyer and Todd Gross, his chef counterpart at Delaware schools, spent their time with the students preparing recipes they will present to the School Nutrition Association of Ohio conference in mid-June.

Following the federal guidelines, they came up with recipes in three categories that kids often shy from: legumes; dark greens or orange vegetables; and whole grains.

Gross, a former chef now working for Gordon Food Service, prepared three recipes for about 300 students at Delaware's Dempsey Middle School: the Pacer Zinger, a spicy chicken black-bean dip; Hatton Crunch, a stir fry (named after school Principal Andrew Hatton) featuring spinach and carrots; and a squash soup dubbed the Nutty Professor.

Students loved the Pacer Zinger and Hatton Crunch, said Sally Rathje, the district food-service supervisor.
"The Nutty Professor, well, they didn't like that as much," she said. "Nutrition is only as good as what kids will eat."

For Liberty Elementary, Lindemeyer prepared Wholly Guacamole, a whole-wheat guacamole and bean quesadilla; and Squish Squash Lasagna, which substitutes strips of butternut squash for noodles.

The children enjoyed both, Lindemeyer said.

But will they choose them over hot dogs and fries?

Gross is convinced that youngsters, when given a choice, will eat flavorful, healthy food.

"You think they want mac and cheese, pizza and chicken fingers," he said. "I'm not saying they don't, but they also like burritos, salsa and even soup."

When Lindemeyer returned to the school a few weeks ago, he worked with kids to prepare two other dishes: a fruit-and-vanilla-yogurt parfait topped with granola and a tossed salad with vinaigrette.

His four helpers and 12 tasters gobbled up the parfait.

"I like the granola and the fruit and how it tastes, and the yogurt was very rich," said Evan Place, a fifth-grader who bought a school hamburger for lunch that day.

Reaction to the salad was more reserved, even though most of the tasters said they liked it.

"Is this going to be in the cafeteria for lunch?" asked Kelly Cline, the fourth-grader.

"I don't know," Lindemeyer replied. "Not right now, but hopefully in the future. Would you like it to be?"
"Oh, yes," the girl said.

When she left a few minutes later, though, Kelly - like most of the other students - had not touched her salad.
"I guess I didn't really like it too much," she confessed.

Such reaction didn't surprise Jackie Billman, kitchen manager for Liberty Elementary.

She recalled when 10 students once told a teacher that they'd eat chef's salad after the teacher explained its virtues. When the time came to choose it for lunch, though, only two came through.

A similar result happened with yogurt.

Still, Billman favors upping the nutritional content of meals - even if the improvements are executed in baby steps.

"We used to buy mixed lettuce, with cabbage and other items in it," she said. "No one ate it.

"Now, I'll put out plain romaine, and kids will get it. But If I put tomatoes on it, I'd lose half of them."